A week after signs of the mission emerged, the National Intelligence Office (NRO) confirmed that the mysterious launch of SpaceX in October would carry a new spy satellite.
Known as NROL-108, the mission is intriguing for several reasons, ranging from its supposed launch trajectory, the missile that is likely to launch it, and the mystery surrounding it. Although both the NRO satellite launches and what the agency usually does are highly secret, it is still extremely unusual for a US government launch of any kind to remain secret for only a month before takeoff.
For SpaceX, the mysterious Zuma mission is the only US mission in recent memory that is on top of the level of secrecy NROL-1
The only mission that NROL-108 resembles is actually SpaceX’s first launch for NRO – NROL-76. Launched in May 2017, the payload – believed to be involved in some low-orbit proximity test (LEO) – remains classified and almost entirely a mystery to this day. The most remarkable thing about the mission was the fact that the spacecraft repeatedly passed close to the International Space Station (ISS) – incredibly unusual, as NASA and Russia maintain strict control over what may or may not approach the crew’s outpost.
Like the NROL-76, the NROL-108 will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, while the mission booster will have the right to try to return to the launch pad (RTLS) by landing back on land. For the Falcon 9, landing an RTLS amplifier fundamentally assumes that the launched payload is light, aimed at LEO, or some combination of the two. While NROL-76 was similar in this regard, NRO unveiled NROL-76 and confirmed that SpaceX will launch the mission as early as 10 months before the launch date.
For the NROL-108, the NRO only confirmed its plans to launch SpaceX after FCC documents have revealed some mysterious mission scheduled for October 2020. Even for the NRO, the discovery of a launch less than a month before takeoff is completely abnormal.
Also abnormal: banning SpaceX from somehow slipping an entire Falcon 9 booster from the building from Los Angeles to Cape Canaveral, NROL-108 is likely to mark the agency’s first launch of a commercially proven rocket espionage agency. SpaceX technically has at least three new Falcon 9 boosters in various stages of preparation for NASA and US military launches in October TBD (GPS III SV04) and November (Crew-1, Sentinel 6A), but all three are well talked about.
According to the NRO’s official confirmation with SpaceflightNow, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket must launch the NROL-108 no earlier than (NET) on October 25. The company faces an extensive Q4 2020 manifesto, including GPS III SV04 (October TBD), Sirius XM’s latest radio satellite (NET in early November), Sentinel 6A oceanographic satellite (NET November 10), Crew’s first astronaut launch. Dragon (NET) mid-November), the first launch of Cargo Dragon 2 (NET November 22), a Turkish communications satellite (NET November 30) and several more Starlink missions.
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